His every story is scripture. His every song a psalm. Whether for exhortation, exultation or simply education, there is a musical testimonial that can only be ignored by those beyond redemption, or already dead, I believe. Every note is laced with truth. Not knowledge, nor wisdom, just truth. Presented in its simplest, purest and most pleasurable form: music. And every soul shall be sated by it.
Even the children.
And because of His music, and the message carried on those waves of wonderful sound, this child became a better man.
Stevie Wonder’s music, I’m sure, means a great deal to many people, but it has had a profound impact on me. In fact, it has brought me the closest I’ve ever come to an actual religious experience…many times.
The first, I remember vividly, was when I was 10 years old.
My older sister, Faraha, was always buying albums. She had gone shopping one day and came back with a bagful.
She pulled out a bunch of LPs, including an Earth Wind & Fire album, I think Gratitude, as well as the soundtrack to Barbara Streisand & Kris Kristofferson’s A star is born.
The last one she pulled out was an album with an orange cover. The cover matched the color of our sofa and loveseat. I would almost crush it a couple of times because someone would leave it carelessly on the couch. I would develop a practice of checking thoroughly where I sit from these near disasters.
I knew who he was, of course. Not a black person alive (nor white probably), of any age, could not know him. A blind man with dark shades, an afro and a dashiki, performing (and winning) at every award show and on most of the variety shows TV had to offer, playing an harmonica, piano, waving and clapping, always smiling at the ceiling, or the heavens, and singing with the range and depth of a one-man chorus. Everybody knew him the way everybody knows Michael Jackson now.
He was a miracle.
But, honestly, at that time, I was more interested in the “A Star is Born” soundtrack. I ain’t ashamed to say that to this day I love me some Barbara Streisand. And, that was the album we’d been waiting for, my little sister and I. It would be a week or so before I even gave Stevie a listen.
Before “Songs in the Key of life” I was aware of Stevie mostly as an icon. Musically, his big hits like Superstition, Signed Sealed Delivered and a bunch of the Motown stuff stood out most in my memory. What could a 6 or 7-year-old do with Innervisons or Fulfillingness’ First Finale, right?
And then, one night, I was alone in my darkened living room, sitting in the harsh bluish light that came in through the window from the three-story tall lamppost practically directly outside it, diffused by the bamboo shades and silk curtains my mother favored, listening to the radio as I often did, when I heard Isn’t she lovely, the hot new single from Stevie Wonder, on WBLS. Frankie Crocker, the coolest voice in black radio history, had talked it up a bit; how this was a song Stevie Wonder had written for and about his newborn daughter, Aisha (which happened to be my little sister’s name.)
And then he played it.
And, I liked it. A lot.
But, even at 10 years old, something struck me as peculiar about this. About a blind man singing a song about the daughter he’d never see, at least not the way I see, how normal people see, bragging and raving about how lovely she is. It set me to thinking, you see. (Yep, I’ve always been this way.) Isn’t she lovely? isn’t she lovely? It wasn’t a question, though, was it? Somehow, he knew, the way he knew where all the keys were on his piano. I’d watched the man play a piano and two electronic keyboards at the same time, hands flying every which a way, with an harmonica hung round his neck.
The man was a freak show.
Which begged the question: Could he be seeing her some other way?
Being a child, for one, and a big Marvel Comic fan, I tended to attribute unexplained powers to the supernatural or phenomenon that science fiction comics thrived on, like Gamma Rays, Cosmic Rays, Radiation and the likes.
One of my favorite comic book characters was a blind superhero named Daredevil. He’d been blinded in a radiation accident and since radiation, as we all know, also enhances certain abilities, Daredevil acquired superhuman acuity, agility and sensual perception.
Had something similar happened to Stevie Wonder, I wondered.
Years earlier, I had erected a shrine to Spider Man and kept it for (what seemed like) years, but was probably more like weeks! Incense and candles set before mounted pictures of Spidey in various poses. I’d fall to my knees, hands clasped, head bowed and pray! “Please God, please send a radioactive spider to bite me! Please! So I can kick my brother’s ass!” I begged God to grant me the power to take him down, hard, with Spidey strength!
Maybe that’s when I’d given up on God. What kind of God would let my older brother pummel me senseless regularly without furnishing me with appropriate superpower to fight back? Was one little bite so much to ask? It didn’t even have to be permanent…even temporary super strength would’ve been fine with me. I’d have made sure he never bullied anyone again, you can believe that! I used to even promise God I’d devote my life to righting wrongs and bringing justice where injustice prevailed. I’d follow the hero code as laid out by the God of comic books, Stan Lee, himself! I’d punish cops that shot black kids holding toy guns, and kids that stole pocketbooks from old ladies, and all kinds of heroic stuff.
But, Stevie, I was sure, had gotten something from God. Something special. His prayers had been answered, thaｔ’s for sure. Were his gifts cosmic, or gamma, or radioactively derived? Or something else, I wondered.
By the time the song had ended (it’s a good 6 or 7 minutes long you know) I had thought up a storm. I’d even thought of a paradox. I thought maybe the secret of Stevie’s power resided in the music itself. Maybe it was making music that gave him the superpower of seeing babies, playing multiple instruments, and making incredible music while in the dark. I had to hear it again. So I waited, for WBLS always played the same songs over and over, anyway.
Wait a minute! Then I remembered, Faraha had bought the album! I could listen to it again, and again, anytime, if I liked.
That night I listened to Isn’t she lovely until I knew every note.
I fell asleep on the orange couch.